Kant and Aristotle on ‘why be moral?’

Al asked:

Compare and contrast how Kant and Aristotle would answer the question ‘why be moral?’

Answer by Craig Skinner

Kant would say that to be immoral is to be irrational.

Aristotle would say that to be immoral is to be ignorant of what contributes to a fulfilled life.

To expand slightly:

For Kant, moral action is action in accordance with rational self-legislation ie in line with maxims that any rational being would wish everybody to act on. When acting morally, we act on rules that we ourselves, as rational creatures, lay down, as suitable for all of us to act on within a community of rational beings. So, to act immorally is to act irrationally. Kant seeks to establish, a priori, morality as it (necessarily) applies to all rational beings, not just to humans, although it does apply to us insofar as we are rational. Of course application to humans must take account of the contingent features we happen to have as humans (such as being sexually active, tribal, social animals), but Kant thinks of this as ‘anthropology’ rather than ethics.

Aristotle’s views are more naturalistic, tailored to human nature. He says that everything has a proper end (telos) or function (ergon) and has virtues appropriate to that end (sharpness is a virtue in a knife whose proper end is cutting). Reason is the characteristic feature of humans compared with other animals, and our proper end is ‘virtuous activity of the soul in accordance with reason’ which constitutes a fulfilled, good life (‘eudaimonia’, flourishing, happiness).

Both appeal to reason. Kant makes it his centrepiece. Aristotle gives a role to emotion, but allows reason as our key attribute and holds that virtuous activity requires practical wisdom (acquired with time and effort).

Any moral theory has to account for the amoralist.

Take the main character (played by Ray Liotta) in Scorsese’s film ‘Goodfellas’ about Mafia middle managers. Liotta grasses on his bosses, gets witness protection and moves to an anonymous life in a distant city with his wife, children, suburban house, garden, car and ordinary job. He laments the passing of the old days:

‘If I wanted a theatre ticket, best seat in a restaurant, a new car, it was only a phone call away. Now I stand in line like everybody else. That’s how It’ll be for the rest of my days – living like a schmuck’.

How does the Aristotelian, Kantian, or any other moralist convince Liotta that his new (potentially ethical) life is better than his old (unethical) mobster life. Will we convince him that he is irrational (Kant), ignorant of what constitutes a truly happy life (Aristotle), or that he can now help maximize the good (utilitarian) ? I think not. Ethical appeals, on the whole, work only with people already living within an ethical framework of some sort. If somebody genuinely doesn’t see that, say, torturing young children for fun is just wrong, nothing I can say will make a difference. Aristotle would say such people are not normal, do not share in the important features of our common human nature. I am inclined to agree. Psychopaths lack the usual human emotional responses to viewing or inflicting suffering. The defect appears to lie in damage to the emotional brain centres (specifically the amygdala). Hume would be unsurprised, but sadly for Kant, such people’s rational intelligence appears normal.

Thankfully, the question you put is typically only asked (by adults) in the context of philosophical discussion. If our children ask it (in words or by their bad behaviour) we usually give them a Kantian answer (‘what would it be like if everybody did that’) or an Aristotelian one (‘ you’ll do better in life if you don’t behave like that’). And at heart most of us believe that acting morally is good for a person, else why would we try to bring up our children to do so.

One thought on “Kant and Aristotle on ‘why be moral?’

  1. This question is unfortunately narrow in that it wholly ignores the Judeo-Christian philosophical point of view which synthesizes and subordinates Aristotelian and Kantian views. A broader question might offer more light on the notion of ‘why be moral’, namely: “Compare and contrast how Kant and Aristotle would answer the question ‘why be moral?’ in relation to the ancient, traditional Judeo-Christian response.” The Jew and the Christian would say, be moral because your Maker is moral. What’s more, you have been made in your nature to want to be in relationship with your Maker, which provides added motivation to be like your Maker. Even if a philosopher has dismissed, out of hand, the very notion of Maker, she owes an explanation for this third way which appears to function in quite practical ways for millions of people who’s rational intelligence otherwise appears normal. This Judeo-Christian view accomodates the Aristotelian possibility of akrasia in the context of the free will of a flawed (fallen) human nature while also affirming the Kantian notion that to act immoral is to act irrational even though both of these fit within a larger and deeper relational context in intimate connection with a divine being.

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